There’s lots of wonderful analysis out there about what the most vital part of a novel is: the characters, the plot, or the style. I would add the planning, too, but that’s a post for another day. You can make an argument for any and all of these (and let’s be honest, they’re all vital), but I’m going to stand on my soap box for a moment and yell and scream about characters and how you develop them as a writer.
I’ve made some mistakes as a writer, but I’ve never made the mistake of not having a sketch for each character in all of my books. And by sketch, I don’t mean an actual, hand-drawn sketch or anything like that. I’m a writer, not an artist, you know?
Here’s what I’m talking about:
What does the character look like?
I always start out by ‘casting’ my characters. I definitely spend an obscene amount of time trying to find the perfect picture to match what I see in my head, even if I’m basing a character off a known actor or actress. On that note, I usually do ‘cast’ my characters with a known actor or actress jut because I can see them vividly in my mind without having to work that hard at it. That also makes hearing their voice in my head that much easier, too 😉
That being said, the first part of characterization is physical. Hair color, eye color, body type, and style are the easiest parts of this, but what about going deeper? Maybe your protagonist has an accent because she spent her childhood in England (or something like that), which could make for some interesting character traits when dealing with culture, if you execute it successfully. Maybe your antagonist only buys expensive Italian suits because he’s overcompensating for something, also another potential gold nugget if you play it right.
Who is this person?
Here’s the nuts and bolts of the character. Where did they go to school? What do they do for a living? Are they a workaholic or lazy? Obsessed with their iPhones or fundamentally against social media? What about politics? What food do they like? What music do they listen to? What do they read? Do they talk with their hands? Talk with their mouth full?
More specifically, I want to know their history too. What makes them who they are now? What past trauma or tragedy or embarrassment or anything else you can come up with shapes who they are in the present?
I know all that may seem sort of trivial, but it’s freaking important. You absolutely need to know who these people are ahead of time because if you don’t, there’s no way your readers will either.
What about secondary characters?
If they’re not worth including in your character sketch, they’re not worth including in your book either.
But can’t I figure this out as I go along?
No! You can’t. You just can’t. You need continuity, and you need clarity.
You can’t have your central protagonist declaring her hatred for the Kardashians in the first few chapters and then following them on Instagram somewhere in the middle. If you know these kinds of things ahead of time, you can plan and you can build the character over time, choosing which details to reveal at the most opportune time.
Also, you won’t frustrate and confuse your readers in the process. All in all, it just makes for better, more well-rounded character, which equals out to a better reading experience.
What does this look like in action?
For me, it’s messy. But it’s an organized mess, so at least I have that going for me.
Everything exists in a Google Doc, starting with the central characters and working down from there. You can see from the screen shot to your right that there’s no real rhyme or reason, it’s just there. I’ve got my carefully-curated picture of JLaw and some quick specs (age, education, background, etc.). Then you can see I have a section with questions that still need to be answered, so I still have some work to do.
From there, it’s just stream of consciousness, off-the-cuff, and in no particular order. Maybe there’s a better way to do that, but for me, as long as it’s out of me somehow, someway, that’s enough. Because when I go back to this document as I finish my outline and then move on to drafting, skimming is an easy enough way to remind me what I’d previously come up with for the character(s).
While that’s certainly not revolutionary, it’s the most important pre-writing step you can take, other than outlining. Without knowing who your characters are and where they’ve been, there’s no way you can move them forward.